'I Learned About the Holocaust, and I Couldn’t Believe It. So I Decided to Go to Auschwitz'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A photographer who has taken pictures of more than 400 Holocaust survivors, and a PhD student researching technology that makes texts accessible to readers of all levels

Danna Frank
Danna Frank
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Luigi Toscano and Holger Jan Lehmann.
Luigi Toscano and Holger Jan Lehmann.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Danna Frank
Danna Frank

Luigi Toscano, 49, and Holger Jan Lehmann, 45; live in Mannheim, Germany, arriving from Berlin

Great hat.

Luigi: Thanks. My mother-in-law made it.

What will you be doing in Israel?

Luigi: I’m a photographer from Germany, even though I’m actually an Italian. I’m here because the World Jewish Congress invited me to take part in a conference they’re holding in Jerusalem to mark International Holocaust Day. I will be screening my photographs on the walls [of Jerusalem’s Old City]. I travel around the world and photograph Holocaust survivors. I’ve exhibited my work in a lot of places, and it’s a very great honor for me to come here at the invitation of the WJC.

How long have you been doing this?

Seven years ago, I photographed refugees and projected their blown-up images in a commercial center in my city, Mannheim. The reactions were very powerful. People stopped next to the pictures and asked about the subjects, where they came from. When they realized that these were refugees who live in our midst, that gave them pause. And you know, with everything that’s happening in the world today, with the extreme-right-wing parties in Germany, it’s very important to come out against antisemitism, hatred, racism. So I thought, “What would Holocaust survivors say about this?” And then I started the project. I have photographed more than 400 Holocaust survivors. And by the way, not just Jews – also Roma people, forced laborers, LGBT people and political prisoners.

What’s it like to meet the survivors?

There are disturbing experiences. The first few times I barely spoke. I was very moved and also ashamed. But there are also thrilling moments. I remember, for example, photographing Rina Finder, who was on Schindler’s List, in Boston. It floored me. But my interest in the Holocaust started earlier. When I was 18, I visited Auschwitz for the first time. At school they talked to us about the Holocaust and the war, and I couldn’t believe it. So I decided to go to Auschwitz with the somewhat naïve thought that someone there would explain to me what actually happened. As you can imagine, there was no one there to talk to me. Instead, I found myself standing in front of a mountain of children’s shoes. I was flabbergasted. That was a very meaningful moment in my life, which really shaped me and my values in the direction of… freedom, fraternity and equality. Do you understand what I mean?

Are the Jewish survivors different from the others?

The significant difference, I think – and I am no expert – is that the Jews knew they were going to die. At least they thought they were going to. For the forced laborers, for example, death was less certain. They had more hope.

Photographs of Holocaust survivors projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Have your exhibitions ever been vandalized?

Yes, that has happened, unfortunately. In Ukraine and in Vienna. People drew swastikas and tore the faces of the survivors off the photos. That made me feel really bad, but whenever it happens people I’ve photographed call and say, “Luigi, don’t give up.” So what can I say? I have to go on.

Holger, what’s your story?

Holger: I am Luigi’s best friend, and I accompany him when he takes the photographs, if it can be arranged.

How did you meet?

Luigi was a security guard at the club where my girlfriend was a bartender. So we hung out together when I came to see her, and became friends. That was around 20 years ago.

Did he ever hit you at the club?

Absolutely not! Luigi wasn’t one of the bashers. He was the nicest of bouncers.

Luigi, have you always lived in Germany?

Luigi: I was born there, the oldest of seven children. My parents came from Italy to work. I’m the classic story of a kid who’s half here, half there. My father, who died three years ago, was a simple guy, from Sicily. Tough, you know. He didn’t care about what I did; he cared more that I was working. “Did you work today? Did you eat today?” Then, everything was fine. Three months ago, I received an award from the president of Germany [the Medal of Merit, for special achievements in various fields], and it was odd. I asked him, “Tell me, in your opinion, am I more Italian or more German?” German, he said. No, I told him, I’m Italian.

Do you feel more at home in Italy?

The same as I do in Germany. I speak German much better than Italian. But when I go to Italy on vacation to be with my family, I really enjoy myself. I love the Italian mentality – it’s like in Israel.

Sian Gooding.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sian Gooding, 29; lives in Cambridge, England, flying to London

You have a special name.

Yes, it’s Welsh. I was named after a famous television weather forecaster, even though I am actually English, originally from Birmingham.

Where do you live now?

I live in Cambridge. I’m doing a doctorate in computer science. I was at the Technion [Institute of Technology] now, working with a researcher named Yevgeni Berzak. His research is very relevant to mine, because he’s examining patterns of eye movements [eye tracking]. We examine how people react to a text they are reading.

What is your research about?

It deals with technology that simplifies texts. For example, the text you are now writing will be at a level which I assume many people will understand. But there will still be people for whom it will be too difficult. The question I am asking is how it is possible to adjust the level of the text automatically so it will be appropriate for the reading level of different people.

Is that possible?

It is definitely possible. One of the major difficulties in adjusting a text is to understand people’s reading level. That’s where eye-tracking becomes useful, because it’s possible to understand from the way people use their eyes to read to what extent they understand the text, and to simplify it accordingly. I’m still doing the Ph.D., so I haven’t done anything for commercial purposes, but I’ve worked with Google and created texts for a blog of theirs that deals with artificial intelligence.

Tomer (the photographer): Doesn’t it worry you that the technology will be used for negative purposes?

That is a logical fear. When you’re working on technology, you know what it’s intended to be used for, but there’s no certainty that will happen, and it’s definitely possible that it will be used for other things. I think about that a great deal. In my view, a future in which advertisements respond to the way we look at them so that we will buy more things, is a dystopian future. Ultimately others will use the technology, but in the meantime I’m using it for good things.

How did you get into computer science?

Well, I dropped out of high school because I wanted to be a deejay, and then I found a job in a store called PC World, and it was really cool for me to see how they repaired computers. I thought that maybe I could do something like that, too. My parents always told me that I could do and be whatever I want. So I studied computer science at the University of Birmingham, and it was really, really hard. I didn’t understand what I’d gotten myself into. It’s pretty wild for me to be at Cambridge University, doing a doctorate. I don’t really get how I got there. I also know that social class isn’t such a big thing in Israel, but in England it’s really significant: There aren’t many people in Cambridge who come from a working-class background, like me. I’m the only one in my lab who didn’t attend a private school or a boarding school. An article was recently written about me, after which a lot of people contacted me to say, “If you succeeded, then maybe I can, too.”

What’s it like to be the lab’s poster woman?

Look, you can’t be what you don’t see, and in computer science specifically, there are mainly men. When I was at the Technion, there was a huge majority of men. That has to change. It’s very important for there to be women who can serve as role models and open the door, mainly because much of what is happening there today determines tomorrow’s technology. It’s important for as many viewpoints as possible to be involved – including those of women and in general of people from different backgrounds. I am devoted to this idea. On the other hand, to get into Cambridge was extremely difficult; I don’t want to make light of that and say anyone can do it. I am proud and happy when people tell me that I am inspiring, but it’s clear to me that a great deal more must be done so that these places will become more accessible.

You said your parents told you that you could do what you wanted in life. How did that affect you?

I had a childhood without a lot of rules. I was left on my own for many hours, and as an only child I had to amuse myself. I did a lot of experiments in the garden, I detonated and burned all kinds of things. I was allowed to do everything. That’s a bit problematic, because it’s sometimes hard for me to accept authority. On the other hand, I think it has made me a better researcher.

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